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Rural teachers bill gets scaled back but survives first committee test

Education Commissioner Richard Crandall (right) talks about teacher recruitment with the Senate Education Committee. Also speaking were Richard Mitchell of the Department of Higher Education (left) and Colleen O’Neil of the Department of Education.
Education Commissioner Richard Crandall (right) talks about teacher recruitment with the Senate Education Committee. Also speaking were Richard Mitchell of the Department of Higher Education (left) and Colleen O’Neil of the Department of Education.

A slimmed-down proposal to improve recruitment and retention of teachers in rural districts was passed 6-3 by the Senate Education Committee Thursday.

Senate Bill 16-104 is intended as one step toward facing up to what rural districts call a growing crisis.

“This is not a silver bullet,” said prime sponsor Sen. Nancy Todd, D-Aurora. “This is not a bill that has all the answers, but it is a step in the right direction.”.

The key elements of the amended bill provide stipends for some teacher prep candidates who do their student teaching in rural districts and financial assistance for rural teachers who seek national board certification or the master’s degrees needed to teach college-level concurrent enrollment classes.

One piece of the original bill – creation of up to four rural education centers – worried some Republican committee members because of the $725,000 cost. The committee approved an amendment that replaces the centers with a single state rural recruitment coordinator, trimming $500,000 from the bill’s original $1 million price tag.

“I was astounded that we were going to put $700,000 into the rural education centers,” said Sen. Laura Woods, R-Thornton, noting the state’s tight budget situation.

Panel gets snapshot of teacher pipeline challenges

The committee warmed up to the bill with a half-hour briefing on Colorado’s teacher recruitment picture. Members heard some alarming comments:

  • Recruitment is “one of the most critical tasks we’re going to have to face in the next several years,” said education Commissioner Richard Crandall.
  • “We’ve kind of gone over the cliff. … We are definitely in a crisis, make no mistake,” said Robert Mitchell, education preparation officer at the Department of Higher Education.
  • “I definitely do believe we are in a crisis or the edge of a crisis,” said Colleen O’Neil, director of teacher licensing at the Department of Education.

Enrollment in and graduation from Colorado’s traditional teacher preparation programs dropped again last year, according to a recent DHE report.

Citing that study, Crandall said, “We’re going to need 1,500 to 2,000 teachers [a year] from out of state.” Because of that, the commissioner said, CDE will be targeting the top 20-rated teacher preparation programs in the nation for recruitment “and to build this pipeline into Colorado.”

A Colorado team will visit Arizona State University in April.

“We’re going to spend a whole day talking to students about what it’s going to take to get them to Colorado,” said Crandall, a former Arizona school board member and legislator.

Amendments change shape of the bill

The original bill’s $1 million cost was a barrier in the Republican-controlled Senate, even though Todd had an influential GOP ally in Sen. Jerry Sonnenberg of Sterling.

Woods wanted to strike the rural centers entirely. But Todd offered a counter-proposal to keep the single rural recruitment coordinator. Her amendment prevailed when committee chair Sen. Owen Hill, R-Colorado Springs, sided with the four committee Democrats.

Woods said she hopes the Senate Appropriations Committee, next stop for the bill, will take a close look at that part of the measure.

A rural education coordinator funded by a short-term federal grant started working at Western State Colorado University in January. Todd hopes to continue that effort once federal funding runs out.

Other amendments worked out by Todd and Woods put some budgetary guardrails on two other parts of the bill.

As amended, the bill would allow up to 40 stipends for student teachers placed in rural districts. Individual stipends couldn’t exceed $2,800. Another change limits continuing education stipends to no more than 20 a year, with a $6,000 ceiling on each stipend.

Hill and Woods joined the committee’s four Democrats to send the bill to appropriations. Voting no were Republican Sens. Chris Holbert of Parker, Vicki Marble of Fort Collins and Tim Neville of Littleton.

The bill faces an uncertain path.

“I’m sure it’s not the last amendment to this bill,” Hill said.

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